More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #6: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (Continuum’s 33 1/3 series no. 86).

I recommend this piece of criticism/memoir/fan’s notes wholeheartedly, if you’re a Talking Heads fan, though there’s plenty of room for disagreement with some of Lethem’s points and his overall interpretive framework (about which more below).  Personally, I hadn’t listened to this album in its entirety very closely before; listening along with reading Lethem’s book was rewarding.  A few tidbits that will stick with me from my reading:

-“Cities” is a great song which I became addicted to as I listened to the album, and Lethem has an excellent reading of it as “‘Life During Wartime”s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free…”  I’d never thought of it as a disco song, but really, it’s a great disco song, if you just take it at sonic face value.  And the lyrics do form an interesting, more optimistic — or perhaps more effectively self-medicated — counterpoint to the apocalyptic “Life During Wartime.”  As both Lethem and the late great David Bowman (in his bio of the Heads,This Must Be the Place) point out, a lot of this album is influenced by the band’s punishing touring schedule, and that’s also apparent in the emphasis here and elsewhere on movement, various locales, and vehicles.

-Lethem sometimes seems overextended in his theory that this is a concept album of sorts — especially in his treatment of its first song, “I Zimbra,” which would be the necessary last, not first, song for a supposed concept album about fear, the mysteries of everyday things, urban life, and the perils of consciousness, no matter how much he tries to label it an “end run” or “preemptive workaround” — but he is certainly right when he writes about the album’s evident themes and consistent tone, and that listening to the iconic “Life During Wartime” in its original context of this album is absolutely essential to getting at the heart of the song.  It sounds different, here, than it does on its own, which is how I’ve mostly listened to it on the greatest hits album (in an awesome live version) and countless mixes.

-The chapter on “Heaven” is great: I had honestly never paid conscious attention to the disconnect here between the pounding of the bass and drums and the ethereal balladeering of everything else, but everyone notices that this is a different kind of “slow song,” and that’s obviously why. Lethem is convincing as to why that is — how the bass “is easily the best thing and the worst thing on the track,” because it is so out of step with the cloying, floating quality of the song that it “punctures any sanctimony or bogus mystery here.”

And yet Lethem weirdly refuses to use the names of Chris Frantz (drummer) and Tina Weymouth (bassist) throughout the book, almost always referring to them as “the drummer” and “the bass player.”  What the hell is that?  If Bowman’s book taught me nothing else, it was that the tension between Byrne and Weymouth, who was the media darling of the band in its early days, was the driving force in the band’s chemistry.  I have no idea why he’s elided her name here.

-Lethem’s strategy here of alternating between chapters doing close listening of each track and thematic explorations of the album is  nice, and as a whole works well, but it’s his exploration of his relationship with the album as an enthralled teenager that’s really fascinating.  I love his memory of the radio spot (currently not found online) for the album, and his interesting discussion of why the album meant so much to him at the time, as only albums or songs or bands can mean so much to the young before those things become immensely popular, and why he fell away from the band later.  (I differ from him from my latecomer’s perspective; he was crazy at the time, and remains crazy, to damn the ’80s work with faint praise.)  He explains realizing in the ’80s that Speaking in Tongues “was basically Funkadelic with David Byrne singing.”  Again, I beg to differ — this is insulting both to Talking Heads, and to George Clinton, and in what freaking universe is “This Must Be the Place” anything like a Funkadelic song?  Nevertheless, the exploration of his history with and through this band that meant so much to him makes this worthwhile if you’re interested in Lethem, or hipster music culture, or the 1980s.

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